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Tigers showing true stripes in India

Press AssociationPress Association 12/07/2016 Sarah Marshall

Scanning a barcode of regimented bamboo stems, I wonder if anything in this forest has a pulse.

It's a quiet day and nothing is stirring. A zigzag of movement momentarily sets my heart racing, but it's no more than an optical illusion. I have, it turns out, been bamboozled.

According to a report published by WWF and Global Tiger Forum in April this year, the wild tiger population has increased for the first time in more than a century. Having not clocked even a tuft of orange fur in six game drives, I'm finding that hard to believe.

Experts are equally sceptical; in light of shrinking habitat, the numbers seem incredulous.

Dispirited, we hurtle in tin-can Gypsy 4WDs through Maharashtra's Tadoba Andhari National Park, leaving a tunnel of hot dust in our wake.

Ahead, leaves swirl in a pinwheel of russet and gold, churning up agitated grunts and bellows from retreating sambar deer.

A storm is coming, which could explain our run of unusually bad luck. Bengal tigers may be fierce, stealthy hunters, but a drop of rain will send them scurrying into the bushes, tails between their legs.

"You should have been here last week," says Aditya Dhanwatey, whose family owns the Tiger Trails Lodge on the park fringes. Tadoba's queen bee tigress, Maya, he tells me, was seen hunting in clear view.

The truth is tigers are in trouble.

Poaching remains a grave problem and as the human population grows, conflict is inevitable. In the midst of this, the cumbersome government initiative Project Tiger seems to be strangling itself with red tape.

Aditya, though, sees a way through it. He has big ambitions to open India's first conservancy, managing tiger safaris on private land he hopes to buy from neighbouring villages.

"We already have tigers coming to our watering hole," he says, pointing to a collection of TV screens in the dining room, all connected to camera traps.

Crucially, a conservancy would enable greater freedom for game drives and, by giving employment, would incentivise communities to protect wildlife.

So far, Aditya is making great progress. Maharashtra now has the relevant legislation in place and a search is under way for funding.

For now, we have to play by the rules - something that doesn't come naturally to my guide, Paul Goldstein, a restless wildlife photographer and campaigner who's rarely satisfied.

Pacing up and down outside the park's Khutwanda Gate, a five-minute drive from the lodge, he curses furiously until dithering, bleary-eyed officials arrive with keys at 6am.

Once inside, we rattle along bone-shaking roads.

Wrapped in half-light, stripped white eucalyptus trees loom like spectres above a mist of brown, brittle grass. Two startled sloth bears bundle across our path, followed by a family of wild dogs wearing hazy early-morning halos.

There's no radio communication in the park, so we spilt off in different directions, searching for pug marks and dividing time between watering holes - the best place to try and find hot, thirsty tigers.

Tadoba is arguably one of the most progressive parks in India. In 2012, when the Indian government ill-advisedly banned tourists from core tiger areas, Tadoba defiantly stayed open. The Forestry Department has also shunned a zoning system, meaning all visitors can enjoy the available space.

Paul obviously has faith in the park. He's been guiding tiger safaris for more than a decade, previously in Bandhavgarh.

"Anger and frustration, that's what drives me," admits Paul. "Tigers are still dying; we're not winning."

We return to the lodge, dusty orange faces glowing brighter than the cast of TOWIE.

The following day, we schedule a meeting with Shree Bhagwan, the state's chief wildlife warden, to discuss improvements in the park.

Sitting beneath the shade of a teak tree, Paul hammers through his suggestions, drawing a plan in the sand for improved access routes. Shree nods in agreement.

Enthusiasm renewed, it's time to find our tigers, who are most likely on a sambar or gaur kill. Tadoba has an excellent prey base, part of the reason why there's a healthy tiger population.

And today, Maya and her cubs have been found. Tugging at a kill, every muscle in their bodies flashes with brilliance.

Over the next few days, we watch cats paddling in the water, staring at their reflections and snoozing in the sunshine. A jungle cat furtively skirting a watering hole is a bonus.

No matter the distance, coming eye to eye with a tiger is overwhelming. Time and time again, I ride a rollercoaster of awe, fascination, anger and sadness. I quickly understand why Aditya and Paul have chosen such a difficult battle to fight.

As we drive back to the lodge, black, swollen rain clouds gather overhead. Another storm is brewing. It won't be the last.

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